On February 5, 2019, the Valdai Club hosted an expert discussion, titled “International Security in the Context of Nuclear Uncertainty”. Leading US and Russian political scientists – Dimitri Simes, President and CEO of the Center for the National Interest, publisher of the National Interest foreign policy magazine, and Valery Garbuzov, Director of the Institute for the US and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences – were the speakers.
The starting point of the discussion was the United States’ withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) and Russia’s countermeasures, while its conclusions encompassed the whole range of international security issues in the context of the crisis in US-Russian relations.
According to the experts, we live in the era of a new cold war, but there are more differences than similarities between the current situation and the cold war of the twentieth century. With the emergence of new types of weapons, the world is experiencing a dangerous moment of demolition of the old arms control system. However, there is a hope that sooner or later the participants in the confrontation will be able to move to some form of its regulation.
Was it worth saving the INF Treaty?
The experts were rather cool-blooded in their assessments of the de facto demise of the INF Treaty, signed in 1987. They believe that it would have happened sooner or later, and attempts to rescue the treaty were belated and insincere. According to Valery Garbuzov, there are three reasons why no one was going to rush to the barricades for the sake of the INF Treaty. First, the entire arms control system was created in the now defunct bipolar world. In the present world there are two bipolarities (USA – Russia and USA – China), which are not symmetrical. Second, in the face of growing competition between the great powers, the old arms control system appears to be a vestige. Third, the arms race has already begun. Nuclear weapons are being improved, new types of high-precision weapons are under development, so countries can easily say goodbye to the old treaties. One day, the world will come to a moment when a new arms control system will be needed, but so far the leading military powers do not feel the need for it.
It is logical to expect that the next and extremely dangerous stage of this process will be the destruction of the entire arms control system (take the New START Treaty, whose extension is in question). According to Garbuzov, this is the logic of the way the world is evolving: if in the 1980s it seemed that there would be less strategic weapons and more control, today arms control fell victim of their development and improvement.
America is not interested in dialogue
The parties have voiced their claims regarding non-compliance with the INF for a long time. According to Dimitri Simes, even the Obama administration said that Russia violated the treaty in terms of the missile range by deploying Iskander missiles to the European part of the country. Accusations were also heard from the Russian side and concerned, in particular, the Aegis Ashore missile defence system, which can launch not only antimissiles, but also attack cruise missiles, as well as UAVs, which were not mentioned in the INF Treaty. According to Simes, the problem is not in the charges as such – as new types of weapons are developed, mutual claims are quite natural. Had the US-Russian relations been normal, the parties would have discussed the facts of violations at the negotiation table, there would have been hearings in Congress with military, experts and scientists testifying. But not today. The political class pointedly rejects all Russian explanations, Simes said, describing the psychological atmosphere in Washington.
According to Simes, the American establishment is confident that Russia (unlike the US) will never admit its guilt. Without going into the root causes of this attitude, he noted that the situation when Russia denies everything is convenient for many in the United States. “The topic of conversation is shifted from what and why Russia did to the fact that Russia cannot be trusted in principle,” the American expert said.
Is a new missile crisis in Europe possible?
Amid the deepest crisis of mistrust between Russia and the United States, the American establishment ignores any statements by Moscow, only responding to particular moves, Simes said. In other words, what matters is not the agreements that exist between the two parties, but what weapons they intend to deploy. According to him, Russia will not deploy in Europe such weapons systems that can change the balance of power, but will respond to the deployment of such systems by the United States.
However, Russia should not be afraid of the immediate deployment of American medium-range missiles or other similar systems in Europe. The US administration cannot unilaterally place any weapons in Europe: this requires the approval of Congress and budget allocations, and also, not least, the consent of the Europeans themselves.
Here, Poland and the Baltic states are a risk factor. These countries, which consistently hold the most anti-Russian positions in NATO, can themselves propose their territories for the deployment of American missiles. But, as Simes stressed, if weapons are deployed there, the threat of a preventive strike of Russia against these countries will also increase. “I don’t know what administration and what Congress would go for such aggravation,” he said.
New cold war
At the current stage of the US-Russian confrontation, each side is convinced that the other is its main opponent and perceives this confrontation as a zero-sum game. Although this situation resembles the cold war of the twentieth century, there are significant differences.
According to Garbuzov, if the old cold war was bipolar global confrontation on an ideological basis, more or less under regulation, today’s confrontation is neither global nor controllable. “In terms of content and structure, this confrontation does not repeat the cold war, because it is unfolding in a polycentric world,” the scholar said. Nevertheless, in the minds of the American establishment, Russia, like the Soviet Union, is already playing the role of the existential adversary, since its foreign policy behaviour is perceived as a threat to constant values of the US foreign policy, whose origins go back to the very history of the country.
A huge difference from the era of the classical cold war is the spread of Russophobia among the American ruling class, Simes said. According to him, in the 20th century some American officials might hate communism but were positive towards Russia. For example, President Nixon considered the USSR a great power, remembered its role in the defeat of Nazism, respected Soviet science. The dialogue between the USSR and the USA was strongly encouraged. Today, the attitude towards Russia – not only the state, but also ordinary citizens – is so suspicious that such a dialogue is very difficult to conduct.
Is there any hope?
Today’s state of the US-Russian relations will define them for generations to come, Garbuzov said. Will the crisis deepen or is there hope for a new detente? Donald Trump’s coming to power led to an unprecedented polarization of American society and made the Russian factor part of the domestic political agenda. According to Garbuzov, after Trump leaves the White House – in a year or in five years – the issue of “Russian interference” will lose its relevance, although other problems will remain.
In turn, Dimitri Simes pointed out that American society is ready for positive relations with Russia. This is evidenced by voters’ support for Trump, who explicitly stated his desire to improve these relations. The problem is, Garbuzov retorted, that Trump took up an issue that he is unable to solve. Obviously, the two countries need to establish some sort of dialogue and move on to some form of regulated confrontation, although such prospects are extremely vague at the present stage.